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Nashwaak Review - Volume 16-17

Reading Robert Lowell

by Stewart Donovan

Many readers and critics tend to regard Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography as the book that broke the back of Robert Lowell’s reputation or, at the very least, turned his fame into infamy. In fact, the poet’s fall from critical, if not public, grace began almost a decade earlier with the publication in 1973 of three collections of poems: History, The Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet. It was the latter collection, in particular, that brought on the ire of his friends and foes: Lizzie was Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, the writer and one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, Harriet was their daughter. Lowell was accused of putting intimate details into the poems from letters and phone conversations he had had from Hardwick when their marriage was breaking up. And indeed he had, at times even changing the details of the letters. The furor over this event is one of the many controversial episodes recorded in Saskia Hamilton’s monumental edition of The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005). These letters, all 711 of them, along with the Collected Poems that were released in 2003 to critical acclaim, will go some way to restoring Lowell’s place in the literary canon, but the great poet will never again get back his bright star on the walk of fame. The reasons for this, as we shall see, are not so much the fault as the position of poetry, of literature; among other things, it now looks as if Robert Lowell was the last poet (at least in the English language) to acquire fame.

Robert “Cal” Lowell was well positioned from an early age to make a mark in the world. Born amid the Brahmins of Boston he met Robert Frost his first year at Harvard, but it was Ezra Pound whom he wanted to emulate and so he sent a letter off (the first letter of the collection) to the famous modernist asking if he could come to Italy and study under him. It is determined, ironic and, sadly, prophetic, especially in its final sentence: “You shan’t be sorry, I will bring the steel and fire, I am not theatric, and my life is sober not sensational.” The contact and the connection that develops between the great poet and his would be disciple is emblematic: Lowell’s collected poems in form and content may be more akin to Auden’s, but his drive, social conscience, political commitment, and time amid the asylums, surely makes him Pound’s most authentic disciple. The two would become friends and supporters and remain so until the older man’s death.

Despite Robert Frost’s presence at Harvard, Lowell knew there was but one place to study poetry in the America of the late 30’s and that was with Allen Tate. Tate said his house was full so Lowell set up camp on his front lawn and wrote to his friend and contemporary, the poet Richard Eberhart, telling him about Ford Madox Ford, also a guest of the Tates. Lowell’s relationship with Tate, like that with Pound, would also be life-long, but he soon moved from Tennessee to Kenyon College in Ohio where John Crowe Ransome taught and Randall Jarrell was a classmate. Lowell eventually ends up back at Harvard where he graduates at the head of his class in classics in 1940 at the age of 22. He has also met and been in a car crash with Jean Stafford, the writer who becomes his first wife. The letters at this time show Lowell writing in defense of the Jews, getting exempted from military service because of his eyesight, getting married and becoming a Roman Catholic. “I am now taking Communion daily,” he writes to his friend Peter Taylor. Lowell’s conversion to Catholicism was heartfelt but not untypical of his class and position. If an establishment Episcopalian poet wanted to put himself beyond the pale of family and respectability, becoming a Catholic would pretty much insure it. Lowell may also have, like other writers of the time, including Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and our own Marshall McLuhan, been seeking some rock of stability for his restless and radical spirit. Whatever the reason for his conversion, he did not remain a Catholic for very long, but he was not unsympathetic to his many Catholic friends and their social justice causes.

In 1943 Lowell is drafted once again, but this time he refuses to go to war and writes his famous letter to President Roosevelt objecting to the Allies stance of unconditional surrender and their endless bombing raids on German cities. He is sentenced to jail for a year and a day, the day making him a felon. At the war’s end Lowell’s star begins its rise when his first collection of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), wins him awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and establishes him as the leading poet of his generation. The collection contains his first famous poem, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” which, among other things, is an elegy for a cousin killed at sea. The poem contains Lowell’s ‘mighty line’ the drumming decasyllable, but it also shows how he has absorbed the music lessons of Pound’s Cantos and the hard and religious images of T.S. Eliot and others.

Lowell’s fame as a poet comes at a time when the United States is indulging in and celebrating its enormous wealth: the post-war baby-boom of products and by products the like of which the world has never seen, spread out on the pages of Life magazine where Lowell, too, is hailed and photographed as America’s great poet. There is even a call from Hollywood. It is the world Don DeLillo brilliantly records and satirizes in the opening chapters of his masterpiece, Underworld (1998). Lowell’s fame, then, has its birth, coincides as it were, with the debut of the American Empire and he will be its reluctant and unofficial poet laureate. He will also, in many respects, be its last one.

There were opportunities now, advantages he had not foreseen. A job at the Library of Congress allows him to visit one of his mentors in a mental asylum for the criminally insane. One of the many fascinating and insightful things about these letters is Lowell’s defense and understanding of Pound. Here he is in a letter to William Carlos Williams in November of 1948, Lowell is pushing to get Pound the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. He is also responding to Doc William’s query about his old friend’s mental health:

I think Ezra’s Agenda (hard G) is deadly and frivolous. . . . Damn little to offer us who face the terrible future—the Russian war! The conspiracy is all stuff; I saw so many people like that in and out of jail—their minds toppling with it. Yes, the usury is something; but he’s so simpliste— out of a book; our lives and the world will not be right if we just read Ezra’s hundred “masters.” There’s a real innocence, freshness, nobility carelessness and magic to Ezra, but its off the Agenda,—in his anecdotes about himself &others, in his best translations and poems—particularly in the Pisan Cantos, his most human and nuttiest work.

It is now commonly accepted that the United States (with some help from Ireland) dominated the literature written in English in the first half of the twentieth century. Many of these writers were still alive and Lowell will correspond with most of them; there is an air about many of these letters, a sense of confidence that borders on chauvinism. There is something else, too. On one level it is a remark of respect for Lowell’s talent that he is accepted so quickly and wholeheartedly into that exclusive club of High Modernists, among whom are T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, (Pound is different, he’s in the asylum). One of the most interesting of these correspondents is Eliot. In Lowell’s letters to him we see, among other things, how much of a pose the Anglo side of Eliot was. Of course Lowell’s New England Brahmin connections would have gone a long way to endearing him to the Possum, (Pound’s nick-name for Eliot because he said he looks like he’s dead but he ain’t). Lowell may have seen a side of the aristocratic Eliot hidden to most. The Canadian poet and translator, Peter Dale Scott, once told me that he met Eliot in private through graduate work. Scott was a young man (the son of F.R. Scott) but he was determined to ask Eliot about the anti-semitism in the poems. Eliot, Scott noted, apologized for it in conversation but, unlike Pound, never did so in print.

Lowell’s other great advantage at this time is the opportunity he has to spend time with fellow writers at places like Yaddo, a writers’ retreat in New York State. Lowell, like the generation before him, is blessed with contemporaries of enormous talent. The list of correspondents reads like a Who’s Who of American literature and many of these, including John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Theodore Roethke, and J.F. Powers become life-long friends. But by far the most important of these correspondents is the poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop in fact is the single most important correspondent in Lowell’s life and he was equally important in hers, as Bishop’s collected letters One Art (1993) clearly illustrate. Bishop lived most of her life in exile in Brazil until her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares committed suicide and she returned to the United States. Her politics were often as goofy as Pound’s (whom she visited once in St. Elizabeth’s) and include attacking and dismissing Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American, in a letter to Lowell, to the more serious condoning of the CIA backed overthrow of the Brazilian government of President Goulart in 1964. One of the many, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, neo-fascist military regimes bequeathed upon south and central America by successive (and excessive) cold war U.S. administrations. Her politics aside (essentially she was a political naïf) Lowell could not have found a better life-long friend and correspondent than Bishop. Taken together, many of their letters are a how to book on the art of writing poetry. For us Martimers, there is also the added interest of Bishops’ Nova Scotia connection which Lowell, who owned a summer home in Maine, often refers to with both wonder and envy.

Saskia Hamilton (no relation to Ian Hamilton) annotates Lowell’s letters in a scholarly, diligent, and, we might add, clinical fashion. The clinical refers to the headings: “probably written while mildly manic”, “written during an acute manic episode” and “written while recovering form an acute manic episode”. Lowell’s mental illness, his manic depression, was well known long before Ian Hamilton catalogued his pathologies. I remember Father R.J. MacSween teaching Lowell in the classrooms of St.F.X. in the mid 70’s, praising poems like “The Drunken Fisherman” but shaking his head in sadness at the poet’s violent behaviour towards his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Although Lowell’s mania is first noted in his letters as early as 1943, it does not become prominent until his first major breakdown after what is now generally known as the Yaddo affair. That Lowell was blessed with women and men who loved him is clear from the support he received from them throughout his life. That he and they suffered is also clear. Here are two not untypical exerts from letters to Peter Taylor and the translator, Robert Fitzgerald, shortly after his first major breakdown:

I’ve had two letters from you since Baldpate, but no story—before receiving electric shocks, I had a comical mad period singing ballads (very badly and with badly made up tunes) and destroying furniture. . . .

I think of your account of the first part of my break-down in a great moil of confusion, embarrassment and gratitude. I am still far from having digested it all, but I realize that my experiences were like those that might have resulted from a narcotic—terrific lifts, insights, pourings in of new energy, but no work on my part, only more and more self-indulgence, lack of objectivity; and so, into literal madness i.e. had to be locked up and went through all the usual clinical antics. Coming-to, after the shock treatments, was proportionately dismal.

For the rest of his life Lowell will be in and out of mental hospitals, and more than once he is carried off screaming in a straitjacket from the deck of some passenger liner where he is shot up with Thorozene before being given the early and standard alternative to a lobotomy, ECT, electro convulsive therapy. Given the intensity and frequency of his mental illness it is, to say the least, extraordinary that he was able to produce the great poems that he did, let alone be involved in the world of writing and protest politics and then, while all this is going on, still be able to produce these lyrical, impassioned, celebratory and loving letters.

After his marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell sets out for Europe, but his letters are his contact to America: past, present and future. He writes to Doc Williams in 1950 complementing him on his autobiography while he shrewdly critiques William’s followers: “Your way of writing doesn’t help without your eye, experience, and sense of language. Your followers are mostly dull because none of them combine these qualities.”

Writing about Dylan Thomas’ death he noted that “his life was short and shinning as he wanted it—life, alas, is not a joke.” Back in America he is soon teaching again telling Allen Tate that he’s “gotten to quite like teaching and the university world, but its very undermining ” while later he tells Flannery O’Connor that he’s “full to the gills with teaching”.

His longest and most relaxed letters are those he writes to Elizabeth Bishop, but they also contain sharp critical insights: “ ‘Armadillo’ is right, for the little creature, given only five lines, runs off with the whole poem. Weak and armored, I suppose he is those people carrying balloons-illegal-to their local saint.” In another letter to Bishop that same summer of 1957, Lowell talks about a famous poetry reading where eight thousand people show up to hear Cummings. This is the summer that Lowell also writes his now famous, or notorious, or simply sad, depending on your point of view, love letter to Bishop in which he proposes marriage to his life-long lesbian friend. The letter was also published earlier in Bishop’s One Art. This is the year, too, that Lowell writes one of his best known and now signature poems, “Skunk Hour” which he dedicates to Bishop. The poem is about his mental illness. The poem also, almost single handedly, establishes Lowell as a confessional poet. It is not a designation he particularly likes even though it comes to define this period of his work. Writing to Bishop, he gives the impression that he did not know how important the poems was: “ There’s one in a small voice that’s fairly charmingly written I hope called “Skunk Hour,” not in your style yet indebted a little to your Armadillo.”

In 1960 he replies to Stephen Spender who has been praising “For the Union Dead,” possibly Lowell’s greatest poem:

I’m encouraged by what you say about my “Union Dead,” just what I feared was that it lacked the kind of lived history that you and Auden discovered for English poetry in the thirties. Mine has a stern pathetic mystery about it, I think. Somehow it took months to write and came in a time of drouth for me.

Lowell’s characterization of his poem is both perceptive and misleading at the same time: “For the Union Dead” is indeed the equivalent of the “history poems” of the 30’s, but it is far from being “ a stern pathetic mystery”; there is nothing mysterious or arcane about it. The power of the two page elegy lies in its tone, its narrative force, its subdued yet fierce critique of the American Empire from slavery and the Civil War through Hiroshima, the suppression of the Civil rights movement, the beginning of the war on the moon and the post-war servile consumerism of the 1950’s. For a brief moment Lowell slides into lament, into nostalgia for his “small town New England greens” and, more legitimately, he mourns the “Union Soldier” and then contrasts their historic sacrifice with what these divided states have become by 1959:

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my televison set,
The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessêd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
Giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

Lowell never wrote another political poem at this voltage and only Derek Walcott (whom he would soon be praising in these letters) would equal the achievement on the same subject.

Given the content of “For the Union Dead” it is hardly surprising that Lowell would enter the turbulent sixties and become politically active. The subject of his letters from this period make for fascinating reading and much of it is now the stuff of legend: his contact with President Kennedy (senior classmate at Harvard) and his comment in the White House guest book that the Goths (i.e. the Eisenhower administration) have left the White House; letters to Jackie Kennedy before and after the assassination(s); his open letter rejecting President Johnson’s invitation to the White House. Later, there are letters that detail his trips with Senator Eugene McCarthy as he travels the campaign trail and marches on the White House protesting the Vietnam War. Later, still, there are open letters like the one to the New York Review of Books (May 6, 1971) on Lieutenant Calley and the My Lai massacre:

A principle may kill more than an incident. I am sick with fresh impressions. Has no one the compassion to pass judgment on William Calley? His atrocity is cleared by the President, public, polls, rank and file of the right and left. He looks almost alive; like an old song, he stirs us with the gruff poignance of the professional young soldier. He too fought under televison for our place in the sun. Why should the bait be eaten when the sharks swim free? I sense a coldness under the hysteria. Our nation looks up to heaven, and puts her armies above the law. No stumbling on the downward plunge from Hiroshima. Retribution is someone somewhere else and we are young. In a century perhaps no one will widen an eye at massacre, and only scattered corpses express a last histrionic concern for death . We are not hypocrites, we can learn to embrace people outside society—President Nixon, our own Huckleberry Finn who has to shoot everyone on the raft.

This of course is the poet as prophet, and we who sit on this side of the second Gulf War realize how prophetic an artist Lowell actually was. It was not a persona he enjoyed, and much of the heat had been taken off him by the Beats and, most dramatically, by the impact of popular song and culture and figures like Bob Dylan. But with Norman Mailer and others Lowell had his fifteen minutes in front of the White House and it was plenty, more than enough.

One of the most moving aspects about these later letters are the elegies that Lowell writes for his friends and fellow poets including Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and Randall Jarrell among others. Many of the lines from these letters eventually make their way directly into his famous poems. At one level, history may judge Lowell as America’s greatest elegist— a New England Rilke. But this would be too limiting for this amorphous and polyphonic figure. His life was tragic, manic, fearless, brave and, at times—especially for those who loved him dearly and up-close—chaotic and sometimes dangerous. That formidable woman of letters and life, Elizabeth Hardwick, came, by all accounts, to forgive his betrayal of her trust if not her love; Elizabeth Bishop, too, stood by him till his death; others, including his close friend and early disciple, Adrienne Rich, could not reconcile the last works with the man she had known and loved, the break was final.

The collected poems confirm his stature as a major artist, more demanding and insistent, than Frost, Williams, Moore, and his beloved Bishop, but still in the shadow of Pound, Eliot and Auden. The collected letters show a human being more complete, complex and loving than them all.